Scott Stover

A CULTURAL BOND: Scott Stover, shown at his home in Beverly Hills, heads the Centre Pompidou Foundation. (Ken Hively, Los Angeles Times)

The Pompidou Center is a magnet for students, tourists and arts aficionados in central Paris, housing the National Museum of Modern Art, a public library and performance spaces in an inside-out building with mechanical systems encased in giant red, blue and green pipes and a view-to-die-for escalator in a transparent cylinder. But it gets by with a little help from its American friends -- and they are based in Los Angeles.

The Centre Pompidou Foundation, a nonprofit organization that allows donors to reap tax benefits, acquires and encourages gifts of American art and design for the museum's permanent collection. To be sure, it's not the only U.S. group lending a hand to a government-supported bastion of high culture overseas: There are similar affiliations for the Louvre, St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum, Jerusalem's Israel Museum and London's Royal Academy of Arts, British Museum and Tate Gallery. All of those -- including the American Friends of the Israel Museum, with a branch office in Beverly Hills -- have their headquarters in New York. The Pompidou's is the only group of its kind based in L.A.

In an age of global communication, office locations may not matter much. But the Centre Pompidou Foundation has always been a little different.

A circuitous route

Launched as the Georges Pompidou Art & Culture Foundation in 1977, the year the Pompidou opened, the group was founded by Dominique de Menil, a French American philanthropist and art collector who lived in Houston. The foundation was based in Texas for many years, but as De Menil aged, it became less active. After her death in 1997, it languished.

Then came Scott Stover, a New York-educated Francophile with an eye for L.A.

A native of Chicago who was smitten with Paris in his Columbia College and University days -- and lived there for about 30 years while pursuing a highly successful career as an investment banker -- he agreed to take charge of the foundation in 2005.

That meant returning to the U.S. But where?

"Paris is a perfect city in a European model," Stover says. "It has a dense population, public transportation, culture, savoir vivre. It's not obvious where you go from there. But Los Angeles represents a different way of life, more like a city of the future. It has a spectacular urban landscape. It's living in nature. It just felt right."

Stover and his partner, French landscape architect Philippe Cottet, bought a clean-lined modern house in Beverly Hills and turned it into an airy retreat that seems to float above the city. The foundation's headquarters is in a Century City high-rise, in offices donated by a law firm.

Alfred Pacquement, director of the museum at the Pompidou, considers Stover's choice "an interesting alternative" to New York. "We have had an interest in California and Los Angeles for many years," he says.

Though it might sound like diplomatic director speak, the attraction went public with the sprawling exhibition "Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital" at the Pompidou in 2006 -- coincidentally, the same year the foundation opened its Los Angeles office.

Foundation members, who pay $20,000 annual dues to buy American artworks, are more concerned with the group's collecting activities and perks such as annual weekends in Paris and far-flung trips than the L.A. link. But they have thoughts on the subject.

"It's a little bit more of a safe harbor here," says Tony Ganz, a Los Angeles film producer who heads the foundation's acquisitions committee.

Speaking from New York, Robert M. Rubin, a former financier who chairs the foundation's board, sees it this way: "There are lots of arguments to make as to how Los Angeles could be considered America's leading art capital, as opposed to the capital of the art market, which is obviously New York."

"In a way," says Lisa Dennison, executive vice president of Sotheby's North America and former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, "it is a very smart move because New York is such a competitive place. Why not be headquartered on the West Coast and start to build with a different constituency?"

Says Joan Davidson, a New York collector of early 20th century decorative arts: "I kind of like that we seek to do our own thing. The Pompidou is forward-looking. It does challenging exhibitions. There's no formulaic procedure."

Stover, who was recruited by Bruno Racine, former president of the Pompidou Center, has embraced L.A.'s lifestyle, but he and Cottet also have a country house with extensive gardens in the south of France.

"I had no thought of leaving Paris," Stover says during a conversation in his living room. "But I wanted to do something that has some meaning. What I like about the Pompidou is the curatorial vision. It's not about blockbusters, although they have some. It's about art of the 20th and 21st century. The curators show what is important for the public and scholars. The exhibitions redefine art movements and create a new context."